Interview for Sussex Life Magazine with BREMF Artistic Director Deborah Roberts November 2019
What first sparked your interest in Early Music?
I was probably around 14 years old when I first heard some renaissance music on the radio. There was something about the whole style and the way the cadences worked that immediately appealed. From then on I was mildly obsessed with finding out more and began buying every LP I could find. I even started a small group at my school to start trying to sing some of the music, mostly madrigals, that I arranged for us. I think that is what inspired me to study music for A level and then go on to university where I was lucky enough to study with David Munrow. He encouraged me so much, even to take my studies further and do an MA in editing and interpreting early music. I will always be grateful to him as I would not be where I am now without his help!
In your own words how would you best describe the Brighton Early Music Festival?
BREMF is a very special festival and one that from the very start was intended to be more than just a collection of concerts. Our main aim is to make a realistic and relevant context for the music we present. This can often mean involving other art forms; even to the point of including contemporary and community arts with music written hundreds of years ago. I never forget that the music we programme was not composed to be performed in concerts. They didn’t really exist until the late 18th century. Music was a part of everyday social functions, eating, drinking, celebrating, dancing and, of course, religious rituals.
If I were to sum up the festival in one word it would be ‘FUN’!
How did it come about, and how has it changed since its conception in 2002?
The festival was founded jointly by myself and another singer, Clare Norburn, and resulted following meeting over a cup of coffee to discuss arranging a few publicity swaps between concerts with our own ensembles. By the end of that meeting we had decided to put on 6 concerts using mostly our own professional musical colleagues and with volunteer help from the choir I was then directing, Brighton Consort. The whole thing took place in the Chapel Royal in North street to the accompaniment of almost every bus route in Brighton! Undeterred, the following year we applied for and achieved our first funding from the Arts Council allowing us to move into more venues, pay artists properly and produce some real publicity. It was quite extraordinary how it just mushroomed from those little spores!
What has remained central to the festival is still the core of volunteers who do so much of the year round running of the festival as well as helping at events.
I would say that the basic ideas and concepts behind the festival gelled within a couple of years. We started using a festival theme each year and founded our young artists’ programme BREMF Live! Our own 3 choirs and baroque orchestra were all in place by 2010.
Over the years I would probably say that what has developed the most has been partnerships with countless other organisations, from Brighton Museum to Streetfunk (a streetdance school which provided vivid and thrilling dance for our early opera project last year, and will take part in our medieval Feast of Fools this year). I would also say that each year we have become more daring and inclusive but will never compromise the power of the music itself.
What is your favourite part of organising the festival?
Without a doubt it is the programming. It isn’t even as though I sit down to decide I’m going to work on ideas. They just flood in while I’m doing other things, or in conversation with others. Working around a theme is far from restricting. It makes the mind move laterally and opens up so many new possibilities. With Metamorphosis as our theme for 2019 it has been more exciting than ever, not just looking at how musical ideas can be transformed in countless ways, but also looking at the way the Metamorphoses, a collection of 2000-year-old fantastical stories from the 1st century Roman poet Ovid, have inspired music and other art forms for centuries. This can range from the earliest operas to films such as The Fly!
If I were able to choose another aspect, it would be our work with young artists. This has now expanded to the point of including young solo singers in early opera and oratorio as well as ensembles on the threshold of their careers. Meeting and working with such talented young people is a massive priviledge!
Whose performance are you most looking forward to seeing yourself?
That is very difficult, but probably it will be the Italian ensemble La Fonte Musica performing 14th-century music inspired by the idea of metamorphosis (Saturday 26 October). I do receive hundreds of applications for the festival each year, but this one jumped off the screen. The ensemble had just been given a major award for their latest CD, and it is even called ‘Metamorphosis Trecento’. In Italian trecento means 14th century. I have always loved this repertoire since being introduced to it by David Munrow. But it doesn’t get performed enough these days. Not only was this proposal right on theme, but when I listened to the YouTube links they had sent I just knew this was something very special and we had to be able to make it work. The singers have the most exquisite voices, warm, expressive and nimble but without the overlay of wobble, and the players, lute and medieval fiddles, are equally enchanting. I just can’t stop playing one of the songs they will perform for us. It is no wonder that this CD has been described as ‘among The 100 records that all music lovers need to know’.
Whose performance have your most enjoyed in previous years festivals?
Goodness this is really VERY difficult because I have loved them all, but some more recent highlights include a stunning production of the earliest opera by a woman composer, Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero. It also encouraged us to start regular early opera productions and for this year’s festival we have even moved our production (Marco da Gagliano’s La Dafne) to February 2020, thus forming a separate mini opera festival.
For someone who has never been to the festival before, what would you say they would get out of attending a performance?
That would depend enormously on what they decided to attend. We cover up to 1,000 years of every sort of music so what they would mostly get is unbelievable variety. Even seasoned attendees will every year hear music they have never heard before. Too many people also make assumptions about early music and may not realise its enormous appeal to all of the senses.
For someone who is curious and wants a new experience I would recommend the Feast of Fools (Sunday 10 November). There, medieval and renaissance music meets some unexpected references to our own rather crazy times when, according to the ancient custom of this feast, the youth are put in charge! It will be an enjoyable, relevant and highly inclusive event for all the family.
Outside of the festival what would you say has been your greatest achievement?
Before I started the festival I was a full time singer and took part in over 1,000 concerts with The Tallis Scholars. That included singing the top line in the famous Allegri Miserere in the very place it was intended for, the Sistine Chapel. This was at the opening ceremony for the restoration of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in 1994. Opportunities like that don’t come every day!
How do you hope to develop the festival for the future?
I don’t think I want it to become any bigger, but I do want to encourage a wider audience to attend. I would never dumb anything down, but events this year that include Bach played on amazing synthesizers, just don’t do that! Bach’s music is almost indestructible and can work beautifully when recoloured with modern sounds. This might draw more curious people, because they are people that will keep the festival alive and healthy. Most of all I will keep linking the past with the present
Do you have any exciting projects underway outside of the festival?
Certainly! With my professional ensemble Musica Secreta we are currently exploring a stunning newly emerging repertoire of music performed by renaissance nuns that is being discovered by my co-director, Professor Laurie Stras. This may sound obscure, but when you realise that more than half of renaissance women were nuns (with or without their consent!) it becomes a highly relevant and exciting project to be bringing some of the most beautiful and creative work of early modern women into the 21st century.
Do you think is it important to encourage a younger audience to invest time in early music and maybe expand their musical repertoire?
Yes, yes and yes! They never ceased to be amazed at the sheet breadth of colours and styles that this vast repertoire encompasses if they ever get near it. They just need to be given the opportunity to hear it. Too many younger people wrongly think that ‘early’ or even ‘classical’ music is just for older people…WHY?
We have been informed that even when taking breaks in Italy you can be found working on a summer programme of courses and performances, so what do you to really take a break from work?
Well, for a start my life in Italy is not really about taking breaks. The only house I own is there, so it is lovely to be able to bring music and lovely people to my beautiful Italian home in gorgeous medieval Triora. But I DO take time off and do very normal things like knitting, cooking and watching films! In Italy I also have a lovely garden and love growing my own veggies.
However, music is not so much my work as my life. I’m very luck in that respect. I will never need to think about retiring